Broken Hearts, Police and Doctors - Did the NHS Criminalise Grief?
Dr Emma Wiley
On the 1st August 2020, the Daily Mail ran a story accompanied by a video about a Muslim Asian doctor couple, the Abbasis, and their 6-year old daughter who lay dying in a hospital bed of a rare genetic disorder. The police had been called by hospital staff and were at the bedside commanding that the couple come away from their daughter for a conversation.
The couple remain and Mrs Abbasi is seen calling upon the compassion of the police force, explaining that they had been told by doctors half an hour ago that their daughter’s life support was about to be withdrawn. When the couple do not agree to leave their daughter’s bedside the situation rapidly escalates; Mrs Abbasi is forcibly pulled back screaming, and Mr Abbasi is pulled to the floor complaining of being kicked by the police force, develops chest pain and goes on to have a heart attack requiring a procedure the following day.
Mrs Abbasi is seen calling upon the compassion of the police force
Onlookers including the sibling observe the incident but there is no intervention from anyone other than the family and police.
The full details of the incident have not been released. We do not have the hospital’s version of events and this is required in order to form a complete picture. However, we have enough information to begin our own conversation, in the shadow of George Floyd and the legacy of COVID-19.
We do not know why the police were called and whether the timing of their arrival was appropriate. If their daughter was indeed about to have life support withdrawn and the family were sat calmly around the bedside, was police intervention really necessary at this point in time when the family was in the midst of processing their grief?
We do not know what preceded the incident for staff and family – what was the relationship like between these grieving parents and the hospital staff– was there a culture of kindness, compassion and trust between them and how had previous interactions shaped the backdrop of this particular scene?
We do not know why the family did not want to follow the police and leave the bedside of their daughter – did they trust that this would just be a conversation or did they fear that worse might happen?
What we do know is that the situation rapidly escalated and there was a loss of control. Abusive, aggressive and shaming words were exchanged, the father who was pleading for medication and complaining about his chest pain multiple times, went on to develop a heart attack and underwent an emergency procedure; and their innocent 6-year old daughter subsequently died. All members of the family begin the scene in a state of grief and leave it carrying additional emotional and physical pain.
What appears to have occurred in the video is the prosecution of grief. Muslim Asian grief, which may look different to white or secular grief, but is grief nonetheless. Grief cannot be arrested, thrown to the floor or strangled.
The situation is aggravated, not improved, by the arrival of the police within NHS walls and the consequences are significant. For what appears to have occurred in the video is the prosecution of grief. Muslim Asian grief, which may look different to white or secular grief but is grief nonetheless. And whilst every NHS worker has the right to work free of physical and verbal assault, no hospital or police force have the right to prosecute grief. Grief cannot be arrested, thrown to the floor or strangled. Grief is a human emotion, an international emotion and every family experiencing it have the right to time, space and compassion.
We must look at this incident, stop, reflect and learn
So we must look at this incident, stop, reflect and learn. Now that it is public we must be transparent as a healthcare system and look at all the factors that led up to this moment in time. Like Martin Bromiley and Human Factors, we must examine what happened, why it happened and how to do better next time. We will need to look at it from multiple perspectives and time points but the most important part, the bit we struggle to do the most, is to share the learning across the whole system so that it never happens again.
Grief responses are coloured by our heritage, faith and personal and professional experiences but the medical response to emotion must no longer be fear. Let us choose understanding, let us choose connection and let us choose, as per the request of Mrs Abbasi, to sit down with one another, open and trusting, in a culture of compassion. There will be tensions, there will be differences, it will take time and hard work but it will be worth it. For our job is not to break hearts, it is to mend them and no matter what our skin looks like, all hearts bleed the same colour.
Dr Emma Wiley is the MDA Equality & Diversity Deputy Lead & Consultant Microbiologist. She sits on the GMC and BMA's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion councils and is also co-founder and member of the NHS Religion Equality Advisory Group. She is passionate about equality and representation and active in a number of community initiatives.